Inside Second Stage Theater's Ambitious Plan to Revitalize Broadway

Broadway is undergoing an existential crisis of sorts. Recent history has provided producers with some straightforward, albeit conservative, formulas for success. For example, roll out a new musical based on pop song books. Such productions include the ubiquitous Jersey Boys, Mama Mia! and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which was the first original musical of the 2013-14 theater season to turn a profit.

The formula works.

This isn't to say that rolling out a musical based on the canon of Elton John, Paul Simon, or — our vote — the Bee Gees is an easy thing. It isn't. But commercially speaking, it's often easier than bringing an original production without flashy names to the stage. And so Broadway finds itself in a Faustian bind.

Enter Second Stage Theater, an off-Broadway, nonprofit house with a penchant for producing new work. It's attempting to introduce a new formula into the mix by amassing close to $60 million dollars to nurture the next generation of original American playwrights and bring them to Broadway.

Before we take a closer look at the theater's plan, let's address some of the obstacles it's facing. First are the aforementioned commercial considerations. Second, there's the problem of capacity. A majority of Broadway theaters are showing long-running productions, further limiting the number of stages available for new work.

At the same time, a playwright would tell you that Broadway productions, all things considered, are preferable to off-Broadway, due to the cache the big stage provides. Having your show on the big stage brings more publicity, greater financial rewards, a longer run, and perhaps even a Tony or two. As a result, emerging playwrights are stuck in a Catch 22-type situation: Broadway is the best place to show their work, but they're locked out of this exclusive club.

Faced with this challenge, Second Stage Theater is doing what any of us would do. It's buying a theater on Broadway, proving that if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em. It plans to purchase the Helen Hays Theater on Broadway for $35 million and, in a move that is bound to frustrate some purists, generate additional income by selling the naming rights to the theater. The city of New York is also contributing $6 million from its capital fund for renovations. (Some of the theater's large institutional donors include the Blackstone Group, Bloomberg, and the Time Warner Foundation.)

The sale is expected to close in mid-February, but as previously noted, Second Stage is accelerating its fundraising efforts with an eye toward a larger goal of $58 million. The additional money will be used to create a reserve budget to fund new productions and help recruit women and minority playwrights. The extra money will also be used to pay for higher-than-expected construction costs.

To underscore the dearth of original work currently showing on Broadway, we'd like to leave you with a trivia question. There are 40 theaters on Broadway. How many new American plays, in your estimation, are slated to run in the spring of 2015? According to the New York Times, the answer is a whopping three, one of which is produced by Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, so it doesn't even really count.

Second Stage plans on beginning production at its new on-Broadway home in the 2017-18 season.